My Reading of “A History of Islamic Spain”

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It might be hard for some to believe, but the Italian Renaissance (as its name suggests) was more immediately derivative than most European histories would be willing to admit. We’re taught that the Renaissance was a sudden efflorescence of Greek classicism emerging from the new socioeconomic soil of an urban middle-class, as though a light-bulb came on in the darkness of medieval Europe and everyone at once became sophisticated again. Maybe the ghost of Aristotle came down on a chariot into the milling streets of Venice with his Poetics…or maybe there was a missing link. That missing link has gone underappreciated in Western education for centuries, and it is summed up in one magical name: al-Andalus. 

This was the name of modern-day Spain under Islamic rule, a period which lasted from about the 8th to the 12th century but impacted the culture and societies of Christian Europe through the time of the Reconquista and all the way to the present day. Unpacking this vibrant era in European history is indeed a complicated and mighty task, but authors William Montgomery Watt and Pierre Cachia were nevertheless successful in doing so in their delightful and concise survey,  A History of Islamic Spain. And when I say ‘concise’, I’m talking a summary of about six or seven centuries in 150 pages–talk about a distillation of historical research!

One of the reasons I liked this book was the critical approach the authors chose to take in assessing the significance of al-Andalus. Watt and Cachia could have been excused if they indulged in the extremes of hagiography, but instead they decide to be more measured and balanced in their inquiry. The book starts with three primary questions: A) What did al-Andalus contribute to global civilization that was itself fundamentally unique? B) As a single cell of the greater Muslim world, what was the function of al-Andalus in relation to the rest of its ‘body-social’? C) What lasting impact, if any, did al-Andalus make on the Christian world? A History of Islamic Spain, then, can be seen as a determined effort to answer these questions.

Andalusian art 2

“It was in April or May 711 that the first substantial body of Muslims set foot in southern Spain, and saw Andalusia in its most attractive mood.” 

The Arab Empire had essentially inhaled the entirety of the Arabic Peninsula, the Persian Empire and most of North Africa by the time they crossed the Meditarranean into Visigothic Spain. They established systems of suzerainty as they went along, whereby the conquered states were allowed inner autonomy and religious freedom as long as they paid a tribute to the Muslims. The Visigothic government in Spain was weak, and the Muslims took advantage of their inner turmoil to oust the ruling class, surprisingly to the joy and relief of the common people. The majority of the Iberian Peninsula was now a part of the great Islamic dominion that stretched east into Asia.

The many heterogenous elements of the al-Andalus population is partly what made al-Andalus such a fertile and infamous cultural milieu. Besides the Arab Muslims, who themselves were usually divided into genealogical or theological factions, there were the Berbers, the Jews, the Muwallads (Iberian Muslims), and the Christians, known as the Mozarabs. The Berbers, a long-standing ethnic group of North Africa, would later usurp the Arab caliphate of al-Andalus in two successive dynasties, the Almoravids and the Almohads. The Arab element, however, often proved the most influential of al-Andalus, as they enjoyed economic supremacy even under the Berber reign.

Watt and Cachia include a fascinating passage from a Christian writer of the 9th century, summing up the blending and integration of disparate cultures in the nascent state of al-Andalus:

Our Christian young men, with their elegant airs and fluent speech, are showy in their dress and carriage, and are famed for the learning of the gentiles; intoxicated with Arab eloquence they greedily handle, eagerly devour and zealously discuss the books of the Chaldeans (i.e. Muhammadans)…knowing nothing of the beauty of the Church’s literature…in the whole Christian flock there is hardly one man in a thousand who can write a letter to inquire after a friend’s health intelligibly, while you may find a countless rabble of all kinds of them who can learnedly roll out the grandiloquent periods of the Chaldean tongue. 

Here we see, tantalizingly, some of the first seeds of Muslim influence on the culture of Christianity, long before the Crusades encouraged further osmosis between the two religions. The two authors don’t fail in providing their own description of what the ecumenical Muslim governance would have looked like:

“Though they had little in the way of democratic institutions, the Arabs seem to have encouraged a genuine feeling of citizenship. Order was strictly maintained. There were officials who looked after the markets and saw that there was no unfair practices. There were corporations or gilds of artisans, with grades equivalent to master, journeyman and apprentice, and these were carefully regulated. There were inns to give convenient accomodation to travelling merchants and their goods. Thus there were sound material or economic reasons for the growth of towns; and the Muslims were by no means unaware of the opportunities offered by towns for the cultivation of literature, music and other artistic and intellectual activities.” 

Andalusian art

The philological expertise of Pierre Cachia complements the political and cultural assessments of William Montgomery Watt wonderfully throughout the book. Through Cachia we learn of the Andalusian poets, who initially mimicked the great Arabic poets of Baghdad and the greater East, such as the redoubtable al-Mutanabbi, before gradually developing a signature poetic style that flowered in the 10th century and spawned many imitators throughout the Arab kingdoms. This Andalusian style was essentially sensual, wistful, given to hyperbole and attracted to romantic “half-tints”–a style born out of the confrontation between Arabic culture and the ravishingly lush nature of the Iberian Peninsula.

Andalusian poetry also mirrored the many cultural influences that informed it, a kind of literary hybrid which couldn’t have been anticipated by any of the individual traditions that contributed to it.

“Relations with Christian courts in the North of Spain and with Byzantium, toleration of Jewish scholars who were to act as translators and intermediaries, access to Greek and even to some Latin sources–these were to enable al-Andalus to form its own cultural blend. It would even seem that intermarriage with Iberians and daily contacts with a population that remained largely Christian and Romance-speaking were colouring the mentality of the Arabs…”

Even when al-Andalus was recaptured by Christian monarchs, various threads of its intellectual and artistic culture continued to influence the non-Muslim communities for centuries. Watt and Cachia acknowledge a theory that the virality, if you will, of troubadour poetry in Europe can be owed to the Western fascination with Arabic forms and the subsequent adaptation of them. And while the authors are very prudent in admitting that the grounds for such a theory are vague, it’s one of many examples in the book of how Europeans have always admired Arabic culture either at close quarters or from a distance, political atmosphere notwithstanding.

One of the greatest achievements of the al-Andalus period was the dissemination of Greek philosophy to the Arab world and Europe, and the figure most responsible for this triumph was a man named Ibn-Rushd, better known by his anglicized title of Averroes. Averroes was a 12th-century philosopher who wrote several insighful commentaries on the teachings of Aristotle, which gained rapid circulation upon their release. “One of the great merits of Averroes was…to recover the true Aristotle and transmit his thought to Europe. This came about when Christian and Jewish scholars in Spain translated the commentaries of Averroes into Latin or Hebrew.” Further, Averroes ‘averred’ the harmony of philosophy and religion, arguing that the two fields essentially expressed the same truth, which meant that any minor disparities could be reconciled. How incredibly progressive!

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“…it was through the symbiosis or cultural fusion that it was possible for Greek philosophy–both translations of Greek books and original works in Arabic of Muslim thinkers–to reach Christian Europe. There was no ‘iron curtain’ between Christian Toledo and Islamic Cordova in the later twelfth century when Averroes was at the height of his power; and the thought of the great Aristotelian penetrated more easily into Christian Europe than into the Islamic heartlands, and constituted a large part of the stimulus which provoked the greatest intellectual achievement of medieval Christendom, the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas.” 

Watt and Cachia employ an awesome metaphor towards the end of the book when they say that Islam was like a ‘fertilizer’ of cultures. The Persians, the Berbers, the Jews, the Iberians, and yes, Christian Europe all benefitted distinctly from their encounters with Islamic art, thought, philosophy, architecture and craftsmanship. The era of al-Andalus, especially, represents a period of abundant cross-pollenation between the Eastern and Western mind. It is hard to imagine what direction the European intellectual culture of the 15th century would have taken without the cornerstones of Greek philosophy, science and mathematics upon which its cosmopolitan movements were based, yet those very foundations would have been nonexistent without the influx of Islamic contributions! Remember, Greek and Roman texts were often spurned by the Church and derided as ‘pagan’ and ‘blasphemous’. It’s not likely that a trend of classical learning could have been initiated organically from within medieval Europe, such was the grip the Church had on ancient knowledge and its own populace.

In conclusion, A History of Islamic Spain is an engrossing and highly informative read. The duo of Watt and Cachia proves to be a dynamic one, and they provide plenty of food for thought on a number of topics. This is by no means a limited historical survey; as a reader you’re given the opportunity of viewing al-Andalus through a variety of lens, thanks to the combined expertise of the authors. Personally, I’d like to explore whether or not there are English translations of the great Andalusian poets, like the acclaimed Ibn-Hazm who wrote The Ring of The Dove. al-Andalus was indeed a rich and vibrant chapter in world history, and physical testimonies to this still exist in the wondrous mosques of Cordoba and Granada. In a modern era where tensions between Christians and Muslims are at an all-time high, perhaps the profitable ecumenism of al-Andalus is worth revisiting.

 

 

 

 

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